Béla Fleck/Toumani Diabate | 03.19 | CA

By: Jim Welte

Béla Fleck & Toumani Diabate :: 03.19.09 :: Yoshi's :: Oakland, CA

"Béla is someone who might have a hard time expressing himself with his mouth, but he can express himself perfectly with his fingers."

Toumani Diabate
Renowned Malian singer Oumou Sangare delivers this line at the end of Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary about banjo master Béla Fleck's 2005 journey through four African countries, where he played with a variety of musicians in an effort to "bring the banjo back to Africa," as he says.

In an 80-minute set at Yoshi's Oakland with Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, Fleck proved Sangare to be a prophet. Before the set and between songs, Fleck repeatedly expressed trepidation at his years-long quest to incorporate the banjo into the complex rhythmic patterns and diverse instrumentation of music from countries like Mali, Tanzania, and Gambia. Yet when it came time to actually do so - Fleck and Diabate each performed short solo sets before playing together for about 30 minutes - Fleck nailed it with nary a misstep. He even managed to push the boundaries of some of those songs, particularly "Buribalal," an acoustic guitar-driven track by Afel Bocoum that he performed solo on a bass banjo, which had a fatter head, shorter neck, and warmer tone than a regular banjo.

In the solo portion of his set, Fleck played music he learned from artists during his Africa trip, particularly a beautiful melody he picked up from Anania Ngoglia, a blind thumb piano player and vocalist from Tanzania. He also played a song derived from the akonting, a three-stringed instrument from Gambia that is believed to be the world's first known banjo.

Diabate, a 2006 Grammy winner for In the Heart of the Moon, his collaboration with the late great Ali Farka Touré, is one of those musicians who have to be seen to be believed. Born into an iconic Malian family that includes 71 generations of griots, Diabate has been at the forefront of efforts to both preserve the legacy of traditional kora music but also find new ways to introduce the kora to audiences around the world.

Diabate sat on a small box facing the kora, a 21-string harp-lute. In his mighty hands, the instrument was a small symphony unto itself. Diabate's index fingers played the melody, while his mighty thumbs - the guy would dominate at thumb wrestling - flicked the bass line and rhythm. More than most instrumental music, you could almost hear the stories emanating from the notes themselves. This was music that made words superfluous.

When Fleck returned to join Diabate, he continued his reticence, telling his partner to "play something, and I'll try my best to follow." Fleck subconsciously seemed to fashion himself as a hustler. By the latter half of the second of three songs the pair played together, Fleck got a bit frisky and seemed to push the song's boundaries a bit. The momentary unease on Diabate's face was priceless, and the duo had garnered that improvisational tension that can only come when two powerhouses square off.

Béla Fleck is currently on tour with various African masters, don't miss this rare chance to see this show. Dates available here.

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[Published on: 3/25/09]

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NickBoeka starstarstarstarstar Wed 3/25/2009 05:49PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Went to go see this on Sunday, and I was SOOOOOO glad that I did. Really really incredible tones and melodies that Toumani is able to produce from his single instruments.

TheDude starstarstarstarstar Wed 3/25/2009 08:51PM
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i can already tell this will be one of the highlights of my bonnaroo...do not miss this if you're going. when are you likely to see this again?

ptkeela Wed 3/25/2009 09:00PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


I love world music, especially when they through some 5 over 4 or something and just leave it in the whole time. It's the best. Can wait to see this in tennessee.

zachn00b starstarstarstarstar Wed 3/25/2009 09:10PM
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THIS NEEDS TO COME TO ROTHENBURY!!!!!!!!!...toubab is gonna jam with toumani at bonnaroo i can feel it...might have to catch these guys at telluride!

Wild Turkey starstarstarstarstar Wed 3/25/2009 11:47PM
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Wild Turkey

Damn, Bela + anyone is incredible but Im glad there are folks out there tearing it up on obscure instruments (ie. ukelee see Jake Shimibukuru and Thile see mando). love the Kora, thanks Justin! just got out of Chick and Mclaughlin's 5 piece, incredible but the only thing missing was... Banjo.

johnnygoff starstarstarstar Thu 3/26/2009 05:30AM
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do not miss Toumani Diabate if you have the chance! What a beautiful thing to listen to the Kora played the way only a 21-string instrument can be played. I saw Diabate with his orchestra in 2007 @ Grassroots Festival outside Ithaca, NY. What a treat people!

FrankNicoletti Thu 3/26/2009 09:40AM
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I'm seeing this show in about two weeks, plus Vusi Mahlasela will be there with Anania Ngoglia! That's a world-class lineup.

nomemory starstarstarstarstar Thu 3/26/2009 01:03PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


got my tickets to the gainesville show, can't wait!

DAMONCORY starstarstarstarstar Thu 3/26/2009 02:44PM
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I saw Toumani solo last time he was at the Cedar Cultual Center and it was beautiful. I felt like I was slipping into a trance a few times during the show. Very different, but thats what made it great. Go see him.